Latest From the Lab: A Variety of Social Interactions at Work May Improve Well-Being

An illustration of co-workers talking in front of a water cooler.
It’s not just close relationships that help your well-being at work.

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Think back on those friendships you’ve had over the years where the conversations flowed with ease; you laughed over the silliest topics and shed tears during some of the most heartbreaking moments. You knew that whatever you shared with your friends, they’d listen to you without judgment, leaving you feeling seen, heard, and cared for. They’d be there for you whenever you needed them — and you’d do the same for them.

As humans, our deep-seated need to connect and bond with others — to feel we belong and that others care for our well-being — manifests in the most fulfilling and gratifying ways in our close, healthy relationships with friends and family. But recent research indicates that it’s not just close relationships that enhance our sense of well-being; our interactions with acquaintances and colleagues help, too.

The authors of the study found a robust connection between people who had what they called “relational diversity”  — a diverse array of social interactions throughout the course of a day — and well-being. They measured relational diversity across two dimensions: richness and evenness. Richness refers to the diversity in interactions, such as interactions with partners, children, other family members, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, throughout the day. Evenness refers to the amount of time a person engages in social interactions across the different types of relationships throughout the day. Well-being was measured in a variety of ways; participants were asked a combination of questions related to their happiness, quality of life, life satisfaction, and personal assessment of their health.

Looking across four samples of more than 51,000 individuals, the authors consistently found relational diversity was the one factor that most strongly related to people’s well-being — even when taking into account the total number of social interactions people had in a given day and the variety of activities they took part in.

If relational diversity contributes so strongly to people’s subjective well-being, imagine how it could contribute to our experience in the workplace. For example, perhaps you work remotely and have a solid relationship with members of your team whom you interact with daily. On a whim, you decide to join one of your organization’s many social groups on Slack — one for people who have dogs as pets. You delight in sharing photos, memes, and videos of dogs and reading your co-workers’ stories about their dogs, some of which are downright hilarious while others tug at your heartstrings. Or maybe you run into someone at the grocery store who looks familiar, and you realize you both work for the same company. Occasionally, you meet up for a coffee and a quick chat before shopping for groceries. Those moments of connection, however brief, leave you feeling uplifted and content.

By contrast, imagine that you’ve been assigned to a committee that is made up of other people at your level, but you are all from different business units, and you don’t really know them. You’re tasked with meeting for 45 minutes once a week. The company norm is that everyone joins the video conference call at the top of the hour, but the meeting doesn’t officially start until five minutes after the hour. The thing is, everyone joins the call on time, but no one says anything to anybody. They, including you, wait in silence until the meeting begins.

What does that do to your sense of well-being and belonging at work? How might your fellow committee members be affected by the lack of social interaction before the start of the meeting? What would happen if you came on camera before the meeting started and asked people by name how their day was going? Maybe you heard children in the background and asked about them. And, the following week, you inquired about the children or some other aspect of their lives that you had learned about earlier. As you continue to express your interest and curiosity, you start building a sense of relatedness with your colleagues that transcends the committee work you’re tasked with doing. You find one more small and simple yet bright spot of connection in your work day that adds to your sense of well-being.

Acknowledging others and being acknowledged go a long way. When we come across someone at work, whether we’re passing them in the hallway, getting coffee at the same time, or waiting for a Zoom meeting to start, say hello, express interest and curiosity, and engage them in conversation. When we do this, we’re building relatedness and communicating to them that they matter. These actions foster a sense of connection, inclusion, and well-being.

Give it a go, and run an experiment: Broaden your relational diversity and see if it enhances your well-being in the workplace and the well-being of those you interact with.

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